By John L. Fuhring
Bumping along and heading east, we made the Naabi Hill Gate around noon. The cook fixed us a nice lunch of some kind of sandwich containing fish. Not bad once I'd removed the fish. I ate Reinhardt's bananas and other fruit while he smoked a "fag," thereby saving his system (and possibly his life) from Sudden Vitamin Overload Shock Syndrome (SVOSS). Some very beautiful little birds came around to pick up on anything we might have dropped. I took some pictures, but the bird's markings blended in so well with the shadows and colors of the pebbles on the ground, it's hard to see them. After a relaxing little rest we climbed aboard the Land Rover and headed toward the Olduvai Gorge.
The Olduvai Gorge, oh what a name to conjure up my youthful memories. I've always loved Paleontology and early Hominid archeology. Olduvai Gorge, I knew about that place almost as soon as I was old enough to appreciate scientific things. When I was young, I followed the careers and discoveries of Lewis and Mary Leakey and their boy, Richey as reported in my Dad's National Geographic Magazines. Like seeing the body of Lenin in Moscow or visiting the tomb of Galileo in Florence, I never thought I'd actually get there, but there we were, on our way to see and stand on the ground our early ancestors stood hundreds of thousands of years earlier.
Many tourists come to Olduvai, but most guide books do not regard it as a "must see" place. Paul and Reinhardt didn't seem to really care much about going. I was very pleased that soon I would arrive at this almost mythical place. To me this was finding the Holy Grail or at least, a Holy Grail.
This is silly, I know, but I couldn't help but feel that it was such a shame I never visited the place when I was young. When I was young, with my life ahead of me, things always seemed so new and interesting. At my present point in life, it's hard to get very excited about things and places anymore because I know my life is pretty much behind me. It's like the ancient question: "how can I be going down hill when I never reached the top?!?" Oh well, it's better than not going at all.
The road out to Olduvai was unbelievably bad. If they would have taken a tractor and plowed up the road so that nobody could get through it couldn't have been worse. Our guide didn't even take the road most of the way, but drove across country in the general direction of the place. Finally we arrived at the parking lot of a rather nice visitor's center and museum. A small covered outdoor auditorium overlooked the gorge and you could see off in the distance the slopes where the fossils of our ancestors were found. A museum guide gave a good, but short talk while we looked out over the Gorge. We then paid a small fee ($3 USD) to enter the museum. This was not the Smithsonian or the British Museum, but it was a rather nice for way out there. Oh, what I would have given to have spent some time there when I was young and when great discoveries were being made. What a wild, savage and deserted place it was when the Leakeys were there.
We arrived, parked the Land Rover in the lot and got out to look around. What a feeling I had. There I was, standing near where it all started millions of years ago. There I could feel that I and the people around me were part of an unbroken chain of existence extending all the way from the early hominids to the present. This was our home and I had come home to visit the cemetery where many of our earliest ancestors are still buried. What thoughts this place can cause you to have.
Even today, if you try real hard, it is barely possible to imagine East Africa and the Serengeti without modern Humans, no roads and no herds of Land Rovers. It's difficult, but you can just imagine the landscape where several different side branches of hominids are living out their lives. You had Australopithecus robustus, africanus and several different species belonging to the genus Homo. If you could transport your intelligence there, without knowledge of yourself as a member of Homo Sapiens, I think it would be pretty hard to pick out which of the many hominid species would be unsuccessful and which one out of all the others would be the ancestral line that would lead to all of us. In their own ways, they were all adapted to survive in the Darwinian struggle that was (and is) East Africa.
thoughts occurred to me while
thinking of Olduvai Gorge and they are pretty dark. The story
the Human Race isn't very happy, I'm afraid. If you wish to
yourself some of my ranting, I suggest you skip the
here to skip my rant.
One line of humanoids edged out all the others and today there is only one surviving hominid line and one hominid species - in a word, it's just US. All the many hominids that coexisted at the time of "Lucy" have become extinct. Why is that I wonder? Could it be that our species has, within its most basic make-up, behavior patterns formed by a cruel necessity to survive on the plains of East Africa? I think so. I think we as a species and as individuals have a primal need to eliminate competition posed by other species - including species closely related to our own hominid line. Indeed, I think it's pretty clear that throughout all of human history and evidence from pre history included, this murderous tendency extends to feelings we have toward groups within our own species as well.
Isn't it pretty obvious that our inborn tendency is to declare war on Nature and ourselves? What has been man's favorite sports throughout the ages - hasn't it been hunting and especially war? Men may say what they will, but we love war and the opportunities to kill "enemy" species and/or peoples. We don't love it intellectually and the more we live in our intellect, the more we seem to hate it, but deep down, deep down below the intellect, we love it all the same - right? Look at what turns us on at the movies. In my office I am hearing descriptions of the movie "Hannibal" told with (dare I use the word) - relish - by good Christian guys (if you don't believe me they are good Christian guys, just ask them). Really shocking and disgusting stuff in my mind, but evidently it's what most (if not all) of the Human Race loves deep down inside the pleasure centers of our most primitive brain structures.
What is the history of the Human Race if it isn't the tales of wars and battles, genocide, destruction of nature and resulting extinctions? This is true regarding religious history too. What is found in the "Sacred Scriptures" of every belief systems? Everything from the story of Rama and the Monkeys to Exodus to the Crucifixion of Jesus, aren't they pretty much the chronicles of cruel and murderous acts, massacres and genocides committed in obedience to "The Will of (the) God(s)?" It seems to me that "God" doesn't have to look very far to find eager tools to perform these bloody deeds - we're already programmed to do it for Him/Her/It/Them. You know, I think it's about time we stop blaming (the) God(s) for "commanding" us to act murderously and admit that much of our behavior is part of our ancient heritage.
You want further proof of how violent our nature really is? Consider the process for turning innocent boys into warriors. The essence of a warrior is a willingness to obey orders that includes killing those human beings that are considered "enemies" and to obediently engage in highly risky behavior that will almost certainly result in the warrior's death. How do innocent boys with an instinct for personal survival become good soldiers? I've been there and done that and it's called "boot camp" and "military training" and believe me, it works. We are so preconditioned by our natures that a little training is all that is necessary for you, your son or the kid next door to be easily turned into an obedient killer.
And what does it take for our warriors to recognize other creatures as an alien species to be exterminated? Sometimes it's as plain as a difference in racial characteristics or language to make the enemy into something other than human, sometimes it's as little as tiny tags and buttons on a uniform. With the advent of video game warfare, performed in the sanitary environment of a high tech cockpit at 40,000 feet, dozens, hundreds even hundreds of thousands of human beings can be transformed into a bloody mush or a vapor by clean cut, well educated boys. No filthy, barbaric, blood spattered Mongol warriors are these young men. Oh no, they would never rape a helpless woman or hack off the head of a baby they actually held in their own bloody hands. No doubt it would disgust them and they'd need "therapy" to get over their "flash backs." On the other hand, reading their favorite brand of "Scriptures" for just a little while should have the effect of making even the most horrific act seem pretty tame.
How ironic that today's best and brightest young men can commit horrors more terrible and at a scale unknown to the most cruel and gruesome warriors of history - and they don't give it a second thought because these "targets" aren't human beings, they are nothing more than electronically generated "icons" on a screen. How many pats on the back and toasts were offered at the Officers Club for our "heroes" as they reviewed the really gruesome pictures of the thousands of Iraq soldiers who were turned from breathing human beings to incinerated skeletons, and blackened, mutilated body parts by automated, electronically enhanced death invented by good family men working in our leading "defense" establishments? I know these guys, they really are good people and many have "given their lives to Jesus as their Personal Savior." Oh, Lord!!
How ironic that we are shocked and dismayed that little Timmy is caught building a pipe bomb in his bedroom, but we give satisfying careers, bonuses and honors to slightly older guys who build bombs and weapon systems that can destroy large fractions of our own species in the most efficient and gruesome ways. (The) God(s) must be crazy if he/she/they really did create a species like us. Here's another way to look at it: the people who believe their God(s) created a species like us must be crazy to think that their God(s) could be so wicked.
Here is my opinion. Our long, long history of violent behavior as a species comes from deep within ourselves and is pretty much beyond the conscious thought of most people. We are as we are because of how we evolved there in East Africa thousands of millennia ago and we really should realize what each one of us are capable of under certain conditions. It is naive and silly to blame our brutal actions and our sad history as a species on the workings of a God or a Devil.
Will our species realize what it is truly capable of and forbear to complete the destruction of the Natural World or forbear to destroy ourselves? I think it's highly likely that we'll just take the natural path already programmed into our natures. Most of us (who think about it at all) will hide their responsibility and say that it's "Gods Will" or "the Devil makes us do it" every time we are confronted with yet another horror or disaster. On the other hand, thoughtful people who think it is mankind's duty to try to prevent or undo the harm caused by mankind's nature will keep trying to appeal to (in Lincoln's words) the "Better Angles of our Nature." A hopeless and thankless task, in my opinion, and one thwarted at every turn by the religious and political convictions of the worst of us.
Wow! how did I
started with all of that
crap? If ignorance be bliss, then perhaps we should stay away
places like Olduvai Gorge. On the other hand, since we're
there, I'd like to say something about the geology of the
I hope you don't find the following thoughts too sophomoric, but if you
don't want to bother reading through all this, you can go directly to
The geology of the place consists of seven major formations or beds each of which is made up of sedimentary lake deposits or volcanic ash. The really neat thing about these beds is that they are all nearly what geologists call "conformal" meaning that they represent an unbroken sequence of sediments from two million to twenty thousand years ago. That is not to say that there are not small gaps (or disconformalities) within beds caused by erosional episodes. These gaps together with varying conditions favoring or preventing the preservation of fossils means that finds are extremely rare and very discontinuous. There are whole sections where fossils have never been found and this is not surprising because the chances are vastly against the preservation of even a small part of a creature when it dies.
Some people I've talked to wonder why there aren't abundant fossil remains of all our hominid ancestors so that human evolution, if it really is true and we weren't "created" by "intelligent design." can be clearly understood. As mentioned before, fossils are extremely rare and a single small bone or tooth may be from one in a million creatures - the others never leave a thing. What almost always happens is, when a creature dies, the body and skeleton gets eaten and if anything remains of the skeleton, it will be quickly destroyed by weathering and decay. Very rarely thick bones (like skull bones and teeth) will be buried before they can be completely eaten or decayed and if that fragment isn't destroyed by acids in the soil, a tiny part of a creature may survive encased in rock for thousands or millions of years. That's another thing, bones have to be buried where sediments are accumulating not eroding away and, as we all know, most places on land are undergoing erosion. At some point this very rare thing, this fossil, will weather out of its entombing rock and when it does, it must be found right away and preserved or it will quickly be destroyed by the same processes that missed destroying it thousands or millions of years earlier. Consider too that during our species evolution, our ancestors never achieved large populations and did not have large, thick bones. When you take all this into account, it's not surprising that fossils are so rare, especially hominid fossils.
As rare as they are though, many skeletal remains and stone tool artifacts have been found at Olduvai. The hominid fossils and other artifacts include remains of the very famous "Zinjanthropus" (since renamed Australopithecus boisei and probably not a human ancestor), Australopithecus afarensis, and Australopithecus africanus, Homo habilis, Homo erectus, archaic Homo sapiens and fully modern Homo sapiens. What a feeling to stand on or directly over the very ground where the physican evidence of our very earliest ancestors was found and realize that I was just the latest hominid to stand there too. Believe me, I savored the experience.
A little earlier I implied that, throughout the eons, the vast majority of creatures (including most our own early ancestors) never leave a thing to show that they ever existed. I meant that they never leave any kind of artifact in the form of a tool or a fossil bone. It may be true that nearly every creature that lived over those millions of years of hominid evolution has failed to leave anything for us to find, but they did leave us something infinitely more precious than a fossil. They have left us their genetic material, those double stranded molecules that can be found in every cell of everyone's body. This genetic material comes down to us in a never broken chain of existence that physically links us to all the hominid ancestors no matter how ancient. So what if they didn't leave fossils behind? Artifacts or no artifacts, fossils or no fossils, we are here today thanks to those ancient creatures in their unknown millions.
In addition to the genetic material that has been passed down from ancient times, there is this too: the fact that each creature actually lived and contributed to the overall ecology of ancient East Africa has to have had a ripple effect that extends to this very day. What if a key hominid ancestor died and another took his/her place in the chain of existence? It's highly likely our species would not have developed as it did or, at the very least, maybe we wouldn't be the persons we are today. So much in evolution seems to depend not only on adaption of individuals and groups to their environment, but on good old luck too. Who knows what great or minor changes there would be in today's world if some unknown creature of one million years ago had lived its life differently or failed to survive? No doubt there would be something different about our world today.
The most momentous events in history all can be traced to some tiny little thing that nobody even noticed at the time. Consider the possibility of some minor mishap occurring a million years ago. What if, for instance, one of our cave man ancestors hit his prospective mate a little too hard with his club and brained her? Maybe Dubbya's brother wouldn't have been Governor of Florida and Gore would now be President or maybe George Sr. wouldn't have puked on the Japanese Prime Minister and Danny (Mr. p-o-t-a-t-o-e head) Quail would be enjoying his second term - could have happened.
Are you looking for a mystery or an inspiring concept? Is there anything in any of the religions that is as wonderful or inspiring as the thought of belonging to this unbroken chain of existence that extends to the very dawn of life a billion or more years ago? I don't know about you, but there is nothing more sublime that I can dream of in my philosophy Horatio.Anyway, back to the story.